Cyberbullying

In 2010, cyberbullying became a crime in Louisiana, punishable by up to six months in prison and/or a fine of up to $500. Louisiana law defines cyberbullying as “the transmission of any electronic textual, visual, written, or oral communication with the malicious and willful intent to coerce, abuse, torment, or intimidate a person under the age of eighteen.”

Bullying has been around for ages, but modern technologies can expand the reach and extent of harm. It is crucial for adults to understand the scope of this kind of bullying and the harm it causes. Cyberbullying is particularly nefarious because the victims often do not know the identity of the perpetrator. Cyberbullies can use an anonymous email address, or pose as someone else by text, chat room, email or on a social network. The messages or postings can include photos or videos taken in a place where privacy is expected, then uploaded for the world to see. According to the Cyberbullying Research Center founded by Sameer Hinduja, Ph.D. and Justin Patchin, Ph.D., "the hurtful actions of a cyberbully are viral; that is, a large number of people (at school, in the neighborhood, in the city, in the world!) can be involved in a cyber-attack on a victim, or at least find out about the incident with a few keystrokes or clicks of the mouse. The perception, then, is that absolutely everyone knows about it."

How pervasive is this problem? Very. According to the National Crime Prevention Council, 43% of teens have been victims of cyberbullying in the past year. Research shows that most young people are extremely concerned about cyberbullying. The NCPC website provides additional alarming statistics:

  • Nearly 20 percent of teens said a cyberbully pretended to be someone else in order to trick them online, getting them to reveal personal information.
  • Seventeen percent of teens were victimized by someone lying about them online.
  • Thirteen percent of teens learned that a cyberbully was pretending to be them while communicating with someone else.
  • Ten percent of teens were victimized because someone posted unflattering pictures of them online, without permission.

As teenage use of cell phones and other technologies increases, so does cyberbullying. In fact, twice as many ten to seventeen year-olds had been victims and perpetrators of online harassment in 2005 compared with 1999-2000 (Ybarra and Mitchell, 2007). "Cyberbullying," explains Dr. Elizabeth Stassinos, Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at Westfield State College, "is an extension of 'old school' face-to-face power imbalances, cruel humiliations and repeated attacks, but it takes the form of a kind of 'desk rage' that, like 'road rage,' is fueled by more and more sophisticated anonymity on the part of the aggressor. When we make these behaviors known to the young people doing them and get them to understand the unnecessary pain they are causing, they make better choices."

Experts agree that in order to combat the growing incidence of cyberbullying, schools need to have clear policies and procedures in place with firm consequences that are consistently implemented. Unfortunately, most students do not report being bullied for two simple reasons: the belief that nothing will be done to help or protect them, and fear that the bullying will escalate.

Compounding the problem are two additional challenges, according to Hinduja and Patchin. First, many adults underestimate the amount of harm caused by cyberbullying. Some people think that other "more serious" issues are of bigger concern. Secondly, there is the question of who will step up and take responsibility for responding to inappropriate use of technology. "Parents often say that they don't have the technical skills to keep up with their kids' online behavior; teachers are afraid to intervene in behaviors that often occur away from school; and law enforcement is hesitant to get involved unless there is clear evidence of a crime or a significant threat to someone's safety. As a result, cyberbullying incidents often slip through the cracks. Indeed, the behavior often continues and escalates because they are not addressed quickly," (Hinduja & Patchin).

What Can Parents and Educators Do?

Cyberbulling experts agree that the best approach to the problem is one which involves the entire community. According to Dr William Pollack, Associate Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School and Director of the Centers for Men, Young Men and Boys, "Creating a connected environment by ensuring that each child is connected to at least one adult in school or at home is a major step in moving toward a bullying-free school." Children who feel connected to a trusted adult are more likely to report incidents of bullying and communicate their concerns about other children that may be at risk for bullying behavior or being victims of bullying.

School leadership must take a strong and pro-active stand against bullying of all kinds, and expect ongoing commitment on the part of all adults in the school system. Prevention programs must begin at a young age and continue at age appropriate levels throughout a child's education. Experts say there should be "no end-date" to anti-bullying curricula. Parents should be included in discussions and strategy sessions about bullying and prevention in their school system. Clubs, scouts and sporting groups can all be involved in sharing the anti-bullying message and developing a positive school climate.

Parents by law must be informed of the school's anti-bullying plan, but they also need to be educated about the technologies their children are utilizing. They need to be aware of what their children are doing online, and keep track of their online activity. Parents should teach their children about never sharing passwords; that all Internet communications are traceable and not as anonymous as they appear; and that children need to speak up if they are victims of cyberbullying without responding to texts or posts. A family should have clearly communicated rules for Internet behavior in the home, and there must be consequences enforced when these rules are broken.
Law enforcement officers are usually more than willing to make presentations to parents, schools or church groups on cyberbullying and the dangers that are present on the Internet. There are many useful anti-bullying initiatives that already exist which provide online resources, such as stopbullyingnow.hrsa.gov.

Another excellent resource is the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center (MARC), housed at Bridgewater State University. The goal of MARC is "to bring low- or no-cost services to K-12 education, law enforcement, and other professional caregivers for children in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts."  Founded and directed by anti-bullying expert Elizabeth Englander, Ph.D., MARC's services include school programs, conferences, workshops, consultation and research in the area of bullying prevention, cyberbullying education and prevention, and violence prevention.

MARC's resources and publications, many of which are available online, offer advice supported by research to parents and schools about reducing bullying and cyberbullying. One very important tip is to enlist the help of the youth themselves. Getting children to open up about the bullying and cyberbullying they experience is an important first step. Adults need to listen, and then to enlist youth to be part of the solution.

What Not to Do

Experts say that some practices are not very effective. The Stop Bullying Now! initiative of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Health Resources and Services Administration advises parents, schools and youth leaders not to require the students to meet and “work things out.” Because bullying involves a power imbalance, this strategy can actually re-traumatize a student who has been bullied.

The website also warns that while suspension and expulsion of bullies may be necessary to maintain public safety in some cases, a "zero tolerance" policy alone is not enough of an intervention strategy. Studies show that bullies usually were the targets of bullying themselves. A Christian approach is to try to understand the motives behind the bullying and help direct the bully towards the help he or she needs. Schools need to have a strategy for providing counseling or referral to appropriate services for both the targets and the aggressors and for the appropriate family members of the students.

To help children feel safe and supported, a community should demonstrate that it is aware of cyberbullying, that adults care about and will help those who are bullied, and that such behavior will not be tolerated. "We know some people do not 'grow out' of bullying at all," states Dr. Stassinos, "and they can destroy a workplace just as they can a classroom climate and obstruct an education. There's a real cost over a lifetime and to society as a whole to both the bully/aggressor and the target/victim when these behaviors are ignored early on in childhood."

© Copyright 2011 Bree Publishing. Author: Maria Hey